Grammar Slammer #4 – Appalling Apostrophes


Appalling apostrophes are everywhere, and nowhere more chronicly than in the not-so-fine-art of possessives and pluralization. We’re talking today about the nasty habit many copywriters have of putting an apostrophe before each and every suffixed “s” that that comes their way willy nilly.

Since this is a fairly simple matter to clear up, and possibly not worthy of a full slammer, we have elected to tie this particular issue into the larger theme of pride in both its positive and negative senses.

To begin, let’s take a look at the very end of the last sentence, and the beginning of this one. Here we have two grammatical sand traps into which a great many writers fall.

In the first case, we are referring to the possessive “its” relating to our two senses of the word pride. Going straight to the issue, it is at this point teetering on a majority of people who would write this word “it’s”, with an apostrophe, and it’s completely understandable why they do.

By understandable we do not mean forgivable.

It’s understandable because in this case the proper spelling seems like an exception. It’s customary to place an apostrophe before the “s” of any possessive construction, as in; “George’s office is in Gatineau”. So it’s understandable that a good number of people would intuit that the same rule would apply to the possessive “its”, writing it “it’s”. This is the least of the apostrophe offenses, though common enough that it must be flagged and taken out of circulation.

The next offender, and arguably a more egregious one, is the common practice of putting an apostrophe before the pluralizing “s” of any given word. This appears for some reason more frequently when writers are using an acronym that may refer to a collection of organizations or companies in a space; for example, “Most leading NGO’s concur.” Strangely it would be less likely to see this were the sentence to be written as follows; “Most leading non-governmental organization’s concur”. This is such a common error that it often passes the censors, finding its way to many a live web page and final print document.

We would posit that most NGOs, ISPs, VARs and SaaSs would be much better off if they paid more close attention to their use of apostrophes.

Lastly; and this one falls into a special category; we are brought right back to the “its” issue. By some strange feat of invention it is not uncommon to see the possessive “its” spelled “its’”, with the apostrophe at the end. This deserves a double slammer since the apostrophe has no place in the word to begin with, and certainly not at the end of a word that is so very singular. Could it be that in these peoples’ minds, “its” is somehow plural?

And now onto our side theme of pride, in both its negative and positive senses.

While it might seem overly didactic to do so, copy editors gain great insights by not merely correcting their writers’ errors, but also by asking them how they came to them. In the case of the many erroneous itses that appear, were you to ask why they wrote it that way, the answer would most likely go something like this; “yeah, you know, I was never really sure about that.” Your next question might be; “then why didn’t you ask?”.

Rhetorical as it is, it uncovers the rotting heart of bad grammar; the fact that most people’s pride won’t let them ask these basic questions. But when it comes to final copy, allowing basic errors like these to find their way online or into print is not a matter of too much pride, but rather, too precious little.

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